Early morning lap swim at the local pool is generally a peaceful space for me. It’s usually pretty uneventful. I try to go three times a week; I don’t always feel like going, but I always feel better after I do. The other day, though, something happened that upset my equilibrium and got me thinking.
When I showed up at the pool, ready to mind my own business and get a good workout in, I was happy to see three empty lanes. I don’t mind splitting a lane when needed, but it is a nice little luxury to have a lane all to myself. I chose one of the empty lanes, and in the next few minutes, two other swimmers arrived and filled in the other two. I did a long, leisurely warm-up and then stopped at the wall to find that another swimmer had joined me in my lane.
As he swam back and forth on the right side of the lane and I did the same on the left, I realized that he was taking up more than his fair share of the lane. I felt a little annoyed and disrespected. But it didn’t seem like a big deal. I started on my next set.
I was swimming butterfly across the pool one way, and he was doing freestyle the other way. In the middle of the pool, as we crossed paths, the forward motion of his freestyle stroke happened at just the wrong time—and in the wrong place. He hit me, hard, on the head. Shocked, I stopped swimming and looked back at him. He did not stop. I finished the length I was swimming and did another one, then paused to get my bearings. Accidental contact happens in the pool all the time; I’ve gotten whacked by other people plenty of times, and I know I’ve done my share of whacking, too. But usually it doesn’t happen to the head, and it’s never been that forceful. I was physically okay. But I felt shaken up. I started looking around to see if there was another lane I could move to so that this wouldn’t happen again.
As I was looking around, my lanemate also stopped at the wall. “I’m sorry,” he said, “I didn’t mean to hit you.”
“It’s okay,” I said, “but it was hard!”
I wasn’t sure if he didn’t hear me, or if he just didn’t expect me to do anything other than smile and say “no worries.” I repeated myself and clarified: “I know you didn’t mean to, but it did hurt.”
“It’s okay, but I’m going to move lanes.”
I got out, grabbed my things, and chose another lane to share with a female swimmer.
Through the rest of my workout, I kept thinking about what happened. I wondered if I had hurt this man’s feelings or caused him discomfort. I wondered if he thought I was overreacting. I worried about what words he might use to describe me. “Bitchy” came to mind, unbidden.
I had to keep reminding myself that he was the one who hit me. Hard. On the head. It was surely unintentional, but that did not make it okay. Why was I worrying about whether I had made him uncomfortable, or about what he might think of me?
I felt pleased that I stood up for myself, but I also felt vaguely guilty, even though I knew I had nothing to feel guilty about. I had not been unkind. I set a totally reasonable boundary. I chose to value my brain cells, my wellbeing. I knew in my mind that all of this was good and healthy. But something in me still felt the temptation to prioritize his feeling of comfort over my own physical safety.
I know that, to some extent, this is how we’re socialized as women. I also connect it specifically to my years in evangelical church contexts. Something in me worried that my response was not a very “Christian” one. What would a “good Christian” do? What would a “good Christian woman” do? There’s a version of an ideal religious woman who really would pretend everything was okay, smile, make sure the man who accidentally hit her in the head didn’t feel too bad about it, and go on sharing a lane with him. When put like that, it seems ridiculous. It seems obviously unhealthy. But that’s still the subconscious ideal that is stuck somewhere inside me. And I want it out.
I want to make choices for my own wellbeing and be pleased with these choices. I want to set appropriate boundaries and feel good about myself for doing so. For me, as a Christian woman, part of the process of unlearning unhealthy habits of self-effacement and relearning healthy commitments to my own wellbeing means unlearning some theologies and relearning others. It means learning to see myself as an image-bearer of God, full of dignity and worthy of being treated that way. I am not created to be subservient to men; I am created to exist in community alongside people of all genders as equals, valuing one another’s needs equally.
Really, the pious, demure, smiling, falsely comforting model of a Christian woman that pops into my head at unexpected times, as it did in the pool that morning, has nothing to do with the religion of Jesus. I believe in a Jesus who saw and honored women’s power. When I read about Bible women like Ruth and Esther and Deborah and Mary Magdalene and Mary the mother of Jesus, I see them claiming this power. I don’t see them feeling guilty about asserting their needs and taking steps toward their own wellbeing. I see them embracing their agency, taking initiative, leading and loving courageously and knowing that God is with them as they do so.
The religion of these women is the religion I want to claim as my own. No guilt involved. No apologies necessary. The awkwardness of moving to a different lap swim lane is a small price to pay to begin to internalize these truths.
 I’m borrowing this phrase from theologian Howard Thurman. In Jesus and the Disinherited, Thurman differentiates the “religion about Jesus” from the “religion of Jesus”—the Christian religion that has made Jesus into an oppressive figure vs. the religion Jesus himself embodied, which is one of nonviolent, justice-centered peacemaking.
BIO: Liz Cooledge Jenkins is a writer, preacher, and former college campus minister who lives in Burien, WA. She regularly shares justice-minded biblical reflections, poems, “super chill book reviews,” and more at lizcooledgejenkins.com. When not writing or reading, you can find her swimming, hiking, attempting to grow vegetables, and/or drinking a lot of tea. You can also find her on FB (Liz Cooledge Jenkins, Writer) and Instagram (@lizcoolj).